People question the ethics of advertisers creating content and putting it alongside editorially-driven content (see AdAge article). Journalists turn their noses up at native articles produced by writers in their own media company (see this thoughtful article from David Weinberger). Talk show hosts lampoon the concept (see John Oliver's bit here). Advertisers question the efficacy of ads that aren’t hard-sell conversion machines (good Copyblogger POV).
With so much head-shaking and head-scratching, how could I possibly consider native advertising a force for good?
First off, not all native ad formats/style are good. Any tool can be mis-used. And not all native advertising is the same. There are three types of native advertising in my book:
Publisher-hosted content, e.g. native articles
Forbes, USA Today, Businessweek, Atlantic are all offering some type of content creation and/or publishing service that puts brand content near editorial content (see the IBM example from Forbes).
As with so many things, the devil is in the details. The quality of these solutions has everything to do with the value the content provides to readers, how well aligned the content is to the audience of the publication and the final, most contested issue, how the content is labeled to distinguish it from editorial content.
The NYTimes recently got criticized for "toning down" some of the labeling rules they had developed. Much ado about nothing, IMHO. Advertiser-controlled content needs to be labeled simply and clearly. “Sponsored content” seems like a perfectly good label as is the notion of "BrandVoice" that Forbes uses. Then it needs to be delivered adjacent to editorial headlines. Not in some special box off to the side that just screams “ignore me.” Readers are smart. They see sponsored search links in Google, sponsored tweets in Twitter, sponsored posts in the newsfeed of Facebook and LinkedIn.
Context-driven ad networks
Technically this is not native advertising by most people’s definition. When an advertiser puts excerpts of the white paper in a banner or rich media ad unit presumably driving click-throughs to a deeper dive on the content, they are delivering content via the ad channel. With contextual and audience targeting, the net result is similar to the promise of native advertising – useful, relevant content delivered to people who value it (and know it comes from company x).
Why is this Good?
Done well, native advertising delivers useful, relevant and valuable content to the right people. For advertisers to succeed, they must work hard to develop the strongest content that quite literally competes for the attention of readers eager to consume great content. Self-serving ‘articles as ads’ won’t measure up.
Advertisers must invest in knowing the needs and interests of their customers and prospects – outside of the actual buying moment. This drives content that helps solve a business or personal problem but may not be geared to trigger a sale.
Sure, plenty are doing it badly – weak points of view, thinly veiled sales messages, poor writing. But brands are getting better at providing valuable content that support customer’s needs along the entire journey, not simply the purchase-decision moment.
Well-done native advertising is one more positive influence on advertisers to create more customer value to earn attention and action. It can be a force for good.